…by Ian McDonald
This book comes highly recommended–not just by your trusted reviewer at Beemsville, but from sources like Asimov’s, The Washington Post, New York Review of Science Fiction, The San Francisco Chronicle, and India’s national newspaper, The Hindu. This last one is notable because of the book’s setting: India in the year 2047. To quote:
“… as a novel about India, there is nothing like it… [It’s] not just the definitive thriller set in India but the most richly imaginative thriller about India.”
River of Gods has also won several awards (click on the cover art above for these, to read a sample chapter at Amazon, more reviews, etc.) so Ian McDonald certainly doesn’t need my endorsement. But he has it. This is science fiction at its finest: sprawling, smart, with big ideas and fascinating characters. Which sounds like more cover copy so let’s move on.
The idea of a culture’s evolving views of religion and spirituality in the face of rapid scientific advancement and technological change: this is a prevailing theme of River of Gods. A theme sci-fi sometimes seems reluctant to tackle without a ham-fisted approach. Not so here. Of course I know very little about the many aspects of Indian society and religion, but McDonald has taken care of that for me. If you know a little history (and even if you don’t) he provides glimpses of these questions through the eyes of the characters throughout the book. How does this India of 2047 deal with ultra-advanced Artificial Intelligence? What happens to these ancient and persistent (and sometimes repressive) spiritual views when challenged? They can’t disappear, of course. How the believers and non-believers alike struggle with these challenges is fascinating.
Then there’s the concept of caste, the rigid class structures most of us over here have a difficult time grasping. The book’s characters come from all levels, from street-raja to cabinet advisor. They move through those worlds, relying on their own talents and ambitions. You begin get a sense of how it’s all held together for so long on one hand, and how it might begin to fail on the other. McDonald throws in a clever move by extrapolating the consequences of basic genetic manipulation–that of gender choice by parents. What happens after a few generations of boy-baby preference? (Something we’ve already begun to see in China.) Instant social mobility for one thing–at least for the women. And also, some very direct and all-encompassing threats to the whole class structure system. Again, very very interesting.
There are two other aspects of this book that not only heightened my reading experience, they put River of Gods on my short-list of books I’ll return to, break down and analyze, steal from learn from, and (at some point) try to emulate.
The first is the large rotating cast of p.o.v. characters. There are nine them, which jumps to eleven by my count if you consider the small aside chapters. They are all written in standard 3rd person. The characters are pretty much split by chapter and McDonald rotates through the cast with regularity. It’s similar to George R.R. Martin’s Epic Game of Thrones series on the Fantasy side of the house, and done every bit as well here. It’ s the best sci-fi example of this technique I’ve come across. The author doesn’t give equal space to each character, but the amount provided seems just right. (I found myself wondering who his editor is.) Sure, I had my favorites, but not a one did I want to skip over to get to the next. This is, of course, also a function of his excellent plotting and pacing. I admire his techniques of quickly engaging the reader with each new p.o.v. character, providing enough details to give you a sense of them and make you care, and employing different methods to bring in the backstory. I think one reason it works so well is that like all good fantasy/sci-fi, the setting/world is a character in and of itself, and you get to immerse yourself and learn about it through the eyes of its inhabitants. Another reason: these characters are archetypal, which gives you something familiar to latch onto as the chapters whir past. They represent vastly different stations in society, different worldviews and objectives, but each of them proves engaging and approachable on some level.
The second aspect I greatly appreciated is McDonald’s use of other genre’s tropes and narrative conventions. It somewhat reminded me of Alan Moore’s work–particularly Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I’m no lit scholar, but I identified narrative moves from detective novels and romance novels, pulp-action and noir, the classic fantasy orphan tale and political thrillers. These conventions never seem derivative or cynical, and they combine nicely with their associated characters. And they never detract from the overarching sci-fi chops of the book. Because River of Gods makes use of some of the big tropes: ancient cosmic mystery, sudden leaps of tech advancement, brilliant scientists trying to figure it all out while avoiding the pesky establishment, interaction with a new mode of humanity… And it’s all done in India, amidst a backdrop of environmental disaster, regional warfare, and spiritual discontent. But there’s hope of course, and love. So what more do you need?
If I had one criticism it would be this: the ending seemed somewhat rushed and understated. Almost as if the author was saying, “Right, I’ve led you through to the oasis so have your drink and move on.” There’s no tarrying here, no sudden left turn. He’s done such a fine job of setting the characters on their paths and bringing the plot threads together, you’ve sort of already figured out the underlying mysteries by the end.
But don’t let that dissuade you. River of Gods is a great science fiction novel. It’s a reading experience. If you’re a sci-fi fan, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up; if you’re curious about what the genre has to offer, I heartily suggest giving the book a try.